Thursday, January 13, 2011

Was There An Economic Boom in the Third/Fourth Century? The Fall of Rome, II

In 1976, American "public intellectual and strategic analyst" Edward Luttwak published the very well-received Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, which for a generation reigned supreme as a treatment of the operating logic of the Roman Empire. Then a minor critique emerged. The Roman Empire had no grand strategy to be described. Whatever one thinks of the merit of the Luttwak thesis or Benjamin Isaac's critique (which seems to answer in part to the study I was casting around for last time arguing that the Roman strategic posture in the far east was perpetual readiness to fall upon the Persians), the rhetorical turn is familiar. From at least the time of Moses Finley, people have responded to questions about the health of the Roman economy by replying that there was no such thing, at least as we understand it.

That last is an argument from a Marxist direction, and I'm a little tired of it --have been since I encountered Michael Postan (not actually a Marxist, just the author of some books that in my mind go wide of the mark), driven by the provocations of Robert Brenner, arguing that medieval farmers (sorry for the anachronistic terminology but peasants, tenants, landlords --we've got to lump them together somehow, right?) could not conceive of, could not practically, and therefore did implement "improvements." It's just such a weird argument. Seriously? Did no-one build a fence or dig a ditch before "Turnip" Townshend had his big idea? Wherever we're going with this argument, and it is an interesting argument from a number of perspectives, it needs to go somewhere else. (My  bet? A synthesis of this, this, this, and this that I'm not prepared to present to the world.)

All that said, there is a much more concrete reason to say that the Roman Empire wasn't an economy. We have an alternative: a "world-system." It seems bizarre to consider Wallerstein's world system as applying to a single political entity --but a unitary political entity does not have to imply a unitary economy! Generally we get to the notion of "a Roman economy" on the basis of the obvious fact that the entire empire was united by a common currency and taxation.

But are we thinking about money correctly? The Early Modernist in me says that we aren't.

Life of Brian goes for the throat so often that it's a little disappointing to see it get all self-congratulatory like this. (That is, I read "British" for "Roman.")

 But, on the other hand, it's funny. And not, within its limits, wrong.The Roman Empire was, within its limits, an agent of regional development and transformation. The question is, how? If we look at Roman society from the top, where all our informants are, we see men of staggering wealth and power clustered around an Emperor of even greater wealth and power: a kleptocracy, then? Given the frequency of judicial executions, coups and assassinations (and the fact that this is all taking place in Italy), one is tempted to talk about a Mafia syndicate.

So let's by all means rise above the snide and embrace this insight for a moment. What would a society of godfathers look like? Massive "protection payments" would be recycled, after due allowance for conspicuous consumption, back into a client network of dependents and ....soldiers. Okay. Take that and run with it. What if the Roman Army was a huge patronage machine? This answers Luttwak with the firmest rejection possible. Everything about the Roman Army should be disposed to give the ordinary soldier the largest benefit. It's a little hard to imagine independent of every other factor that so many soldiers would end up in the cold and inclement north, but, on the other hand, placing them in pasture country, would have let them eat like kings, as the Vindolanda excavations suggest that they did, and in a world-systems model, the cost of living would have been much lower on the frontiers. This was sufficient to lead many in the later British army to seek appointments in India, which opens a can of worms, but, anyway, I'm saying that Roman armies were disposed where it  made the most --dare I say it-- economic sense.

And it is certainly a fact that the Roman army absorbed by far the greatest share of state revenues. And if we look at salaries as patronage rather than as pay, we can suspect a priori the development of an Early Modern trend of trend of soldiers on the books but off the rolls, making money by working at skilled trades in London while drawing pay for walking the walls up in Northumberland. (Which, again, the Vindolanda tablets indicate.) I'll leave this for now; I have bigger fish to fry with the question of skilled labour, and I still have no clear idea how I'm going to get to talk about it. Besides, I want to talk about the Roman Empire after the reforms of Severus and Domitian, and about money.

So the big question for any Roman emperor is to extract money to pay off his soldiers. Or is it? This is where the early modern historian's instincts are aroused. It is clear that in all pre-modern societies, there was a large subsistence economy. In practice most supposed subsistence farmers would have exchanged goods and thus lived in part within a para-monetary economy in which payments and debts are denominated in currency of the realm, but actually conducted in terms of social credit. For Roman times, it is an open question just how large this economic sector was, and how much it interacted with the state-led economic sector, but the usual presumption from British field studies is that it was  large and no worse off than in the pre-Roman Iron Age.

For those within the state-led economy, we need to explain their participation when there is an alternative. Because they can live better? Perhaps, but this is where my much ballyhooed new thinking about money comes into the picture.  In the end, state-backed coinage and taxation are related. The state demands to be paid in its coins, and pays for things in coin. Thus, taxes create the incentive to buy state debt, while selling things to the state provides one with the means to pay taxes. Full participation in Roman society means paying taxes, and paying taxes means winning Roman coin by playing in the state-led economic sector.

So....about African Red Slip Ware, a Tunisia-produced pottery that rose to dominate Mediterranean markets, along with African agricultural exports in the late Roman period. Is it a coincidence that African exports blossomed at exactly the same time, the ancient historians tell us, that Africa became one of the major sources of imperial tax revenue. How could it be? And consider this story: in 401AD, an "East German" tribe called the Vandals crossed the frozen Rhine. In 409, they invaded Spain. In 429, they invaded North Africa, 80,000 strong, presumably arriving in Morocco, from whence they advanced slowly into Algeria, besieging Hippo Regius, seat of Bishop St. Augustine in 430. In 435, they made peace, accepting a territory in "coastal Numidia." In 439, they broke the peace and invaded Tunisia, besieging and taking Carthage, entering the city because the populace was busy enjoying the chariot races when they attacked. The Vandal kingdom survived 90 years, overcoming numerous invasion attempts launched by the western empire, desperate to recover tax revenues and the subsidy in kind that provided the city of Rome with grain, oil, wine and bacon, which fed which moralists inevitably point to as some primordial equivalent to the modern welfare state, but strikes me as, in the nature of the human beast, more likely to have been aggrandised by the wealthy. In either case, the end of this subsidy in Rome after 435 and at Constantinople with the fall of Egypt almost exactly two centuries later constitutes the clearest of possible breaks with Classical Antiquity, because it broke literary continuity. (i.e. it was the end of the recopying activity that Elizabeth Eisenstein insists was such a fragile link in the chain of human knowledge.) At the end of this period, a solely eastern expedition of modest strength overthrew the entire Vandal empire  in the course of two years of campaigning.

I draw out the details of the Vandal conquest of the entire friggin' Maghrib at such length because it makes so little sense. Even if we imagine that the "Vandals" of 401 consisted of a gigantic warband accompanied by just enough women to give it total demographic potency, people age. The social grouping that crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 426 had either been replenished by recruiting, or would have had a fraction of military-age Vandals compared with the force of 401. So if the army of 426 were 80,000 military-age men.... And if it were, it was still utterly inadequate to conquer the Maghrib. Just ask Charles V or Louis Philippe. Put aside questions of technology and population density. That's just not enough men to be a constabulary, and no wonder that Avril Cameron proposes that the Vandals were more popular in North Africa than the previous regime. I would only propose to add a specific explanation for this. (Leaving the implied politics of "being Vandal" to later.)

How does a backwater province with so few Roman soldiers and no field army get money, if practically the only use that the late Roman state makes of money is to pay Roman soldiers? Deploying someone else's insight: into how finances work in an era of "ready money," I answer that the only way that this would all work is if North Africa went out and bought Roman coins with its exports. That, it seems to me, explains the predominance of Red-Slipped Ware. It does not reflect the "strength" of the North African economy, but rather the distorting effect of Roman imperial taxation, which took cash money from the region, and did not return it. Given this, the effort to export Red-Slipped Ware could have been an economic burden, as opposed to a source of wealth. The impact does not have to be large, depending on  whether the state-led sector was froth on the surface of the vast depths of the subsistence economy, or something more. But it would be sufficient to explain considerable distress and unrest amongst those drawn into the state-led economy. Cameron, I think, has suggested that the peculiar intensity of the Donatist controversy is the prehistory of the political unrest that led to the Vandal conquest. In short, the grievance was of long standing.

Maybe there was a countervailing flow of ready money into the province that actually made economic sense. But as far as I know, there was not. The Red-Slip ware era reflects not economic vigor, but rather severe distortions imposed on the Roman world-system by a system that seems to have had little or no feedback to correct these distortions. To finish sketching my story, I still need to talk about fourth-century hoarding activity and, as I forgot to mention last time, the spurt of wall-building activity in the later third-century, as well as the military annona, of whose extent I was entirely ignorant when I first proposed this picture of a world-system tearing itself apart from the inside out in an email to John Kuehn.

1 comment:

  1. This post is an absolute classic, one of the Lund greatest hits.